Category: Connecting (page 1 of 2)

The danger of “nobody else can understand”

If you are in public safety or the military, as well as some other fields, you know that some people insist that there it is pointless to talk about work to any “outsider.” Often, big agencies have this attitude toward smaller, less busy, ones –  “We are the only REAL firefighters, police, medics, etc., around here.” So they close themselves off from  support by people who otherwise might be peers.

The walls even go up within agencies – specialized, elite teams form a “tribe” mentality that says if you haven’t been part of a similar unit, there’s no point in talking to you about stresses and challenges, even if do the same kind of job.

No doubt, there is some truth to this. Working at a big, busy, urban agency certainly is different from smaller ones. Combat experience absolutely has unique aspects. Being part of an elite or specialized team really is different. People who haven’t walked the walk truly cannot understand. Experience is the only instructor – words quickly fail if we were to try to fully communicate it, especially the emotions around high-stress events (which can directly impact the brain’s speech center).

For a number of years, I have suspected that organizational isolation – that’s this is about – could be as toxic as individual isolation. We know that social support is the most important factor in resilience under stress or recovery from trauma; isolation aggravates stress. In fact, almost any trauma expert will agree that people will continue to suffer as long as they remain isolated –  connections with others give us strength and healing.

I recently began reading Ellen Kirschman’s book, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, which has been sitting on my nightstand for a while. Dr. Kirschman, a well-regarded therapist in public safety, is also regularly involved in the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, where I have volunteered and learned.

Here’s the light bulb that went off as I read Kirshman’s introduction – the “nobody else can understand” attitude cuts us off from our friends and family. If you are certain that even a co-worker who isn’t part of your elite unit can’t support you because “they don’t understand,” then how can your friends and family who are civilians, possibly support you?

Here’s one of Kirschman’s observations about going through a fire academy (emphasis mine).

No one acknowledged how the emotional courage fire fighter families need or the independence that is forced on them contributes to the fire service mission. This is extremely puzzling in light of the many studies that confirm how family and friends are the heart of a fire fighter’s emotional support system.

Her books (she wrote a similar one for law enforcement) are for families, but the message to public safety is just as important. Your social support outside of work is also critical to your strength and resilience in the face of occupational stresses, and recovery from critical incidents and other injuries that aren’t physical.

The following words are why it does not matter that outsiders can’t understand the job.

Empathy does not require understanding.

It’s true – if you are an outsider, you will not understand. If you’ve never been there, I can’t explain what it was like to talk to a patient one minute and then do CPR on him, unsuccessfully, the next. You won’t understand how difficult it was to walk past his wife in the ER waiting room, seeing her comforting another wife, not knowing her own husband was just pronounced dead. If you’ve never done anything like helping a family bury their dogs who couldn’t escape a wildfire, nothing I can say will make you understand. If you haven’t been part of a rescue that went all wrong and killed the victim, I don’t have words for the emotions. If you haven’t done shift work, you don’t know the toll it can take.

Even if you cannot understand, that doesn’t have to stop you from supporting a responder if you are a trusted friend – because empathy does not require understanding. They may spare you details. They probably won’t repeat the sick jokes that helps many get through the day. But if you are willing to simply walk beside them, your presence can be healing.

You don’t need to understand responder experiences to know that they are painful. You don’t have to work shifts to that it is hard to be exhausted and miss family events. Everyone has experienced pain and frustration, he stress of an event or life going out of control. Co-workers can appreciate it more than outsiders, so co-workers are an essential part of any responder’s network of social support. So are spouses, friends with completely different careers, pastors and may others.

Camaraderie is powerful. Every agency – and groups within them – benefits from friendships, mutual support and teamwork. However, the idea that only our co-workers or people like them can support us is a misguided obstacle to wellness. We should not want anyone, from new recruits to  seasoned veterans, to believe that their friends and family have little to contribute. As Ellen Kirschman says, that idea cuts t them off from the heart of their social support system.

Paramedics with social support sleep better

An article in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology earlier this year described a one-week study of paramedics’ sleep and their social support. Those who saw themselves as having more social support reported better sleep. The researchers also observed that the sleep quality of paramedics who perceive more support isn’t as impacted by job stress.  On the other hand, they reported “Those with low levels of support displayed poor sleep quality in the face of high occupational stress.”

In recent years, it has become quite clear that good, deep sleep is vital for coping with stress – poor sleep is associated with increased risk of developing PTSD.  The correlation between social support and coping with stress has also been observed repeatedly in studies. It’s unsurprising to find a link between social support and sleep quality – this reinforces the importance of both.

News report: Meditation reduces stress, changes your brain

Many studies have shown that meditation can be a powerful way to reduce anxiety and raise the body systems that calm us down after exposure to stress. The Washington Post last May reported findings of Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General from brain scans that showed that some parts of the brain expanded and others became smaller after sustained meditation.

This is part of a big change in thinking about our brains, which until recently were assumed to be fixed, unchangeable. Now we we have a word for the brain’s ability to change – neuroplasticity – as well as increasing evidence about what kinds of attitudes and activities encourage positive changes.

Don’t take that bite! Dogs, diets and heart rate variability

Two new reports related to heart rate variability (HRV) reveal more about its significance as a measure of our physical and emotional health. Higher HRV is associated with better stress management. It is a way to peek into the state of a person’s nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, the mind-body information superhighway. The more active your vagus is, the better you are at coping with stress. It is the neural path through which your “rest and digest” system signals your “fight or flight” system to calm down.

One new article reports that people with high HRV can more easily resist temptation when dieting. Greater self-control of that kind is also linked to better psychosocial and physical health.

HRV is similar in other mammals, so another researcher looked at the relationship between HRV and aggression in dogs, hoping that HRV might predict how aggressive a dog is likely to be. Just as humans with high are better at resisting that extra slice of cake, perhaps dogs with higher HRV would be better able to resist taking a different kind of bite.

The resulting article reports that indeed, less aggressive dogs had higher HRV.  “Dogs with bite histories had significantly lower HRV” and owners who reported that their dogs were aggressive also had lower HRV. The researcher’s work suggested that HRV could be an objective way to measure the effectiveness of dog training that is intended to reduce aggressiveness.

Paper: Mindfulness helps elementary students with stress

Researchers at the University of Colorado taught mindfulness techniques to a class of Denver 4th graders, who practiced it daily during homeroom check-in for 10 weeks. After comparing those students to a similar class without mindfulness, they reported improvements in pro-social behavior, emotional regulation and academic performance for those who practiced it. Their conclusion?

Mindfulness in urban classroom settings as a feasible option for students to help with personal stress and coping, as well as emotional and behavior regulation in schools and at home.

The methods came from two sources of mindfulness curricula for children:

  • MindUp, from the Hawn (as in Goldie Hawn) Foundation
  • Mindful Schools, which came out of a project in Oakland, California

Related: Mindfulness Goes to School: Things Learned (So Far) from Research and Real-World Experiences.

Article: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Ruth Whippman takes on mindfulness in the New York Times: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.

Mindfulness is a $4 billion market, she reports.

As much as I believe that mindfulness is good, her skepticism is on point. It applies to every relaxation practice – yoga, deep breathing and all the rest. Coping with stress is much more than just learning to relax. As I’ve repeated many times, social support has the strongest correlation to our psychological resiliency. Spirituality – in the sense of having values and bigger-than-self purposes – also matters.

Whippman cites a U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report, Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being, which surveyed almost 18,000 journal citations covering 41 trials with about 3,000 participants. Its conclusion was that these practices are helpful, but more study is needed:

Meditation programs, in particular mindfulness programs, reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health as well as stress-related behavioral outcomes.

Paper: Adolescent stress management – there’s an app for that

Researchers who gave adolescents a mobile phone app for mindfulness and self- compassion, which have been repeatedly shown to help with stress, found that the young people were willing to use the app regularly. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, this is good news.

Abstract:

The aim of the study was to test the feasibility of a mindfulness and self-compassion based program for adolescents, to be delivered though mobile phones. Twenty racially and ethnically diverse US adolescents enrolled in a study to use the app for 30 days, after which they provided satisfaction data and participated in focus groups to describe their experiences and offer suggestions for improving the app. Usage data were also captured. Results indicated that participants used the app on the majority of days over the intervention period, reported finding it helpful for managing stress, and provided suggestions for substantive areas for improvement. These findings suggest that a mobile app may be a feasible way to disseminate a mindfulness and selfcompassion based program widely among adolescents.

DOI link.

Mindfulness Reduces Texting While Driving

I titled an earlier post “We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.” (which the observant reader will have noticed is 136 characters).

If texting while driving is an indication of hunger for connection, driven by stress-induced mind/body imbalance, then we should expect stress management techniques to reduce the urge to text at inappropriate times. Sure enough, a study of 231 undergraduates at at Simmons College showed that those who scored higher on a mindfulness scale were less inclined to text while driving.

However, to be fair to the researchers, they didn’t see the problem entirely as one of disconnectedness. Their focus was on self-regulation of emotions and attention, which mindfulness has been shown to improve. However, two of the study’s three emotion-regulation questions were clearly relational:

  • “When I am feeling upset, I send or read text messages to distract myself.”
  • “If I am bored or annoyed with the people I am with, I will text someone else.”

Another study, which looked at the social influence on texting while driving among teens and young adults, found that “the more a person believes that their friends and peers approve of and engage in texting while driving, the greater their intention to engage in these behaviours .” Social pressure matters. And so do values, the same study concluded – those who believed it is morally wrong to text while driving are less likely to do so – and the moral influence against texting seemed to be stronger than the social one in favor.

 

We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.

Although technology connects us in some ways, it has done much more to disconnect us over the last half-century or so. Freeways, commuting, school busing, television and most recently, handheld devices – all of these have resulted in a society unlike anything in history. Most of us don’t know many of our neighbors, we don’t often see our own families face to face. Most of our co-workers become strangers when the work day is over. Commuter churches are disconnected from their neighborhood.

I’m not a Luddite. Decades ago, when the Web was brand-new, I began to write about how access to more points of view was becoming a positive force in the world. I still believe that, even as Internet

img_20160927_090631

Face-to-face communication is essential sometimes. Photo from the Loma Fire, where I’ve spent most of this week.

gossip also does so much damage. Media domination by a handful of mega-corporations whose mission is to sell eyeballs to advertisers is not good for anyone. Diversity in viewpoints can drive creativity.

Research is uncovering fascinating insights into how our tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact – and even eating together – can act below our awareness to calm our automatic stress responses. Yet those means of communication, which are so important, are almost completely missing from social media. It is no wonder we are desperately eager to stay superficially engaged, even when we know how dangerous distracted driving is.

I myself don’t feel a great need to pay attention to text messages and so forth while driving. Don’t get me wrong – I feel the urge. But I rarely have trouble resisting it. So I’ve asked myself why this might be. The answer from my gut is that I have a good social support network – people I meet with regularly, face-to-face. These are people I trust deeply, from church, work, and our crisis intervention team. Social support has a very strong correlation to resistance and resilience under pressure. My intuition is that for people who build and maintain that kind of support, it is far easier to resist the urge to see and respond to every text, email or posting.

When we don’t have strong social support, we often buy into the myth that just getting away from the sources of stress will give real relief.  However, what really happens is that our “fight-or-flight” response just changes into different kinds of fighting (seen any online political fighting lately?) or fleeing (noticed anybody who is emotionally checked out around you?).

Building Gratefulness

A few years ago, my spiritual director challenged me to list three things I was grateful for, daily, for 30 days. There were a couple of other parts to this exercise, but it was aimed at helping build an “attitude of gratitude.” I’m happy to report that it stuck with me. One of the instructions that helped overcome my perfectionist and self-criticism tendencies was the instruction to not worry about missing a day – just pick it up again. The 30 days didn’t have to be consecutive. gratitude

Psychologists have only recently begun to look into the benefits of cultivating gratitude, but early findings are encouraging, confirming traditional teachings. In two long-term studies of college students and gratitude, researchers in England found that the more often and intensely people feel grateful, the more social support and lowered stress and depression they believe they have. This makes sense because anything that builds social support will almost surely help us cope with stress and do better overall.

Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

When we are more grateful, we tend to see the world in a more positive light, which protects against stress and depression. We also make our own world better by thanking helpful people – expressing gratitude – because they become more likely to offer us more support.

Does making gratefulness lists work? Yes, says a recent study titled, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens.” Across three groups who either kept lists of hassles, things they were grateful for or ways in which they were better off than others, the people who tracked gratitude ended up with a more positive outlook. The gratitude list-makers were also more likely to offer emotional support to others – another example of gratitude encouraging social support. They also spent more time exercising, slept better, had fewer physical complaints and were more optimistic. Daily gratitude tracking was more powerful than weekly.

I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me – Psalm 23:4

Another study, on religious involvement and gratitude, showed that attending church more often leads to more gratefulness. The increase was greater for people who believed that God works with them to overcome difficulties and challenges.  This makes perfect sense through the lens of stress as a threat or challenge. When we feel ill-equipped to deal with a situation, our bodies have a “threat” stress response, raising the levels of hormones and neural pathways that cause long-term health problems. On the other hand, if we see the same situation as a challenge – because, in this study, we believe God is with us – our bodies react differently, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize long-term health.

Some other studies on the effects of greater gratitude:

  • Daily well-being increased with daily gratitude practices for Vietnam veterans with PTSD.
  • Gratefulness helps people stick with self-directed interventions to improve their body image.
  • Gratitude in children was related to positive functioning after the 9/11 attacks.
  • People who are more grateful tend to recall more positive life events, which helps make them more positive.
  • Writing about how a good thing, such as finding a romantic partner, might never have happened, increased their positive outlook – to the surprise of the writers.
  • Writing a letter of gratitude, about a time you were at your person best, identifying character strengths all contributed to happiness and positivity, while reducing depression.

Bibliography

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Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What Good Are Positive Emotions in Crises? A Prospective Study of Resilience and Emotions Following the Terrorist Attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365–376.
Geraghty, A. W. A., Wood, A. M., & Hyland, M. E. (2010). Attrition from self-directed interventions: Investigating the relationship between psychological predictors, intervention content and dropout from a body dissatisfaction intervention. Social Science & Medicine, 71(1), 30–37. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.03.007
Gordon, A. K., Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Holub, S. C., & Dalrymple, J. (2004). What are children thankful for? An archival analysis of gratitude before and after the attacks of September 11. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25(5), 541–553. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2004.08.004
Kashdan, T. B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(2), 177–199. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.01.005
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1217–1224. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013316
Krause, N. (2009). Religious Involvement, Gratitude, and Change in Depressive Symptoms Over Time. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19(3), 155–172. http://doi.org/10.1080/10508610902880204
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (n.d.). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions Martin EP Seligman & Tracy A. Steen University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://guardianlv.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/happiness01.pdf
Watkins, P. C., Grimm, D. L., & Kolts, R. (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology, 23(1), 52–67.
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Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854–871. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003

 

 

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